Longtime Tri-State region resident Bill Shelton is getting close to the finish line of the Appalachian Trail.

Shelton, known on the trail by his nickname Pilgrim Billbones, is walking the historic, 2,200-mile trek from Georgia to Maine. He was a longtime worker at AK Steel who has discovered both peace and personal growth in his attempt to tackle one of the natural world's greatest challenges.

"It is 110 percent worth it," Shelton said of his long walk during a recent phone interview with The Daily Independent.

"The views — some of them are indescribable," Shelton said. "You start thinking that everything in the world has been taken over by (fast food outlets) and (big box stores) and power lines, but you are reminded there are lots of huge expansive areas that are just nature. The views are just incredible. The smells in the woods, there are hundreds of different kinds of smells you wouldn't even know about unless you are out here. The diversity, the plant life and wildlife. The whole thing is continuous discovery. Every corner you turn, you don't know what you are going to see."

Shelton is walking the trail with philanthropy in mind. He wants to raise awareness about the fight against autism and specifically, he is asking Tri-State residents to support the work at Pathways in Ashland to combat autism. Pathways' Center or Autism and Developmental Disabilities provides therapy for those with autism or related developmental disabilities.

"All of our services are in wait list status. It is a matter of staffing and space," said Tiffany Diehl, coordinator at Pathways.

Shelton encouraged the region to support Pathways because treatment of autism can truly make a difference. Those interested in helping can call Marshall Tyson at Pathways at 606-329-8588 x-4128.

"I'm a very social person," Shelton said. "I enjoy communicating with other people in all its forms and it pains me to think about autistic people who have this whole universe in front of them but they can struggle connecting. have empathy for that."

Shelton, or Pilgrim Billbones -- a nickname earned because of his thin frame -- was born in Huntington. He's lived in South Point, was in the Navy and worked for Armco in Ashland. He lived in Ashland for three decades and has a house in Worthington. His girlfriend lives in Portsmouth.

He started on his journey April 29. He walks with a group of hikers led by Warren Doyle. The group meets up with a van every night in a practice some call "slackpacking" the trail. In the van is your food and your tent.

"We leave the van in the morning, hike all day get to the van at six or seven in the evening," Shelton said. "We pitch our tents up tear them down and go seven or eight days in a row with maybe one day you go into a town."

The hike has been both grueling and rewarding.

"Out of 140 days I've had 12 rest days," he said. "We had a rest day. We hiked 40 days in a row with no days off and we averaged 15.7 miles a day that is our average."

Shelton looks forward to completing the trip. He was approaching the finish line in Maine as he talked to the newspaper by cell phone recently.

"I learned generally (in regular life) I'm too busy and things will be okay -- take it a day time," Shelton said. "Be happy where you are enjoy where you are. Don't worry about next month just worry about today."

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